Short Cuts: Summary Reviews #8
The Spinning of the World
The music on this release is simple, the melodies almost nonexistent. Talmadge's singing is restrained and often almost spoken. The effect is to draw the listener's focus to the words of the songs. More than a storyteller, though, Talmadge is a poet, setting his words to music as a mode of presentation. In this, he joins such artists as Lou Reed, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Kris Kristofferson, and Lyle Lovett, among others. In fact, Talmadge's vocal style embodies echoes of several of these earlier artists. At times, one hears bits of phrasing reminiscent of Dylan, Lovett and Cohen especially.
The lyrics are simple and evocative. They explore and sometimes bridge that space that grows between friends and lovers and, if they don't always seen to touch that far shore, they have the power and emotion to touch the listener. Like Talmadge's performance, the words suggest a broad range of influences on his writing.
Talmage is beyond the cut and paste stage of young artists, where influences appear like colourful and obvious stickers on the page. Here is an artist who has taken from the greats of his time only what he needs and can use, almost seamlessly incorporating it into his own style. His influences are only apparent and never obvious. If not yet a master of his art, Talmadge is at least an artist who has become comfortable with his own abilities and no longer has to hide behind the tricks of others.
A poet and a performing songwriter, Jeff Talmadge may grow to be a very special artist who in his own time will influence the work of future young writers. In the meantime, he has made an excellent beginning with The Spinning of the World.
Dancing in the Moonlight
Connie & Paul's Dancing in the Moonlight is the wonderful anachronistic exception that proves the point. Here is music made in the year 2000 that sounds as though it belongs in the decade immediately preceding the first Peter, Paul and Mary album. Not the jingle jangle of the Byrds here but the plinkety banjo of the Seegers. Not the subtle chord progressions of folk rock but the elaborate, almost classical finger picking of the Fifties folk revival. Here are beautiful voices singing beautiful melodies in which the lyrics, while not incidental, are not the whole point of the song. Paul has the rich resonance of a Seeger or Brand, perhaps at times even Yarbrough. Connie is less Judy Collins and more Marg Osburne. The sound is full and rich, with a sentimental edge.
Most of the songs on this release were written by Connie and Paul. The exceptions are Michael Smith's wonderful "The Dutchman," a sweet love story I have admired for many years; "Nancy Whiskey," one of the more popular traditional tunes; and "The Miramichi Waltz," written by Terry Gadsden and given credit in the liner notes but not listed on the track list. This last is yet another instance of artists adding an extra, unlisted song for no apparent reason. Even though several songs show a definite Stan Rogers influence and some have decidedly contemporary referents, still the overall effect is of time travel to a simpler time when Camelot have taken root in the United States of America and the world basked in its light.
"america (the promise)" is a sweet, sad love story that sounds like it had been written at the time of the great Irish migration to the Americas. This is among the most pared down and the most powerful writing on this release. Both the lyrics and the simple melody carry the listener deep into the story of two lovers of long ago. This is the final song (official) on this release and ends in a moving violin based instrumental that leads naturally into the final (unannounced) track, probably "The Miramichi Waltz" mentioned in the liner notes. [One of several quirky things about this album is that "america (the promise)" is the only song whose title is given entirely in lower case.]
Anachronistic or not, this is delightful music from Canada's east coast. It's well worth not just one but several listens. This is not the old sea shanty folk-country of Hank Snow and Burl Ives. It's not the new Celtic of Natalie McMaster and Ashley MacIsaac. It's not the mid-century trad of Don Messer and those who showed up weekly on his show. But it is a wonderful collection of gems from the cultural goldmine that is Canada's Maritimes.
A Week in Eek
This is one of the more quirky releases I have received. Waldman plays old-time fiddle that is neither the hillbilly style of the American east nor the Canadian maritime style currently so popular but is something uniquely his own. It reminds me most of the barn-dance fiddlers I heard as a child in Western Canada. Andrea Cooper's accompaniment on flute and banjo adds to the down-home folky feel of the music. Waldman's voice weaves in and out of the music, bringing his highly personal view of Alaska to poetic life.
Purists, fiddle or folk, may feel that this release is not strong (or even not very good) musically. They may be correct. At times, it's best to be neither a purist nor a perfectionist. Waldman's performance of these traditional tunes is warm and comfortable, like listening to someone's grandfather play on the back porch some summer's night. This, rather than precision, is exactly what is needed to support the familiar feel of Waldman's poems.
Ken Waldman's poetry suggests a broad range of influences, from Black Mountain and the Beats to Robert Service, and probably more than a smattering of more academic literary poets. The poetry itself is simple and to the point. He tells the stories of the real people he meets in his travels through Alaska. Sometimes he speaks in the free-verse colloquial style of the American storyteller. Other times he slips into a rhythmic style more like the Empire doggerel of Kipling or Service. Always, he has a story to tell and he tells it simple and unornamented by literary gewgaws.
Waldman's reading, much like his poetry, varies widely from performance to performance. His "A Week in Eek" is read flat, almost as book-bound literary poets read at poetry readings, but with emotion. Several of the poems on this release are read this way, but "Juneau Vets" and others swing like Pierre Berton reading Service, carried forward by the rhythm and drama in Waldman's voice. Although written as a longish poem, "Poetry Reading, Brevig Mission" is told like a Garrison Keillor prose story. In one instance, "Cluck Old Hen," Waldman even attempts singing. Having heard him, I can assure you this was a daring act.
A Week in Eek is different. It's interesting and it's fun. I believe it may also turn out to be an important cultural artifact, at least in the Alaskan places (including the small village of Eek) to which it makes reference.
Kick It Down
Trying to be someone you're not diminishes who you are. If you've not yet sorted out who you are or want to be, it's hard to avoid sometimes trying to be who you're not. Listening to the music of Clay Tyson, I get the feeling he may be in precisely that quandary. In a way, Tyson reminds me of Pat Boone, a country singer with a Bing Crosby voice who wanted to be Little Richard. At times, Tyson sounds like a folk singer who wants to be a pop idol. He seems to be feeling his way toward the artist he will become. Every song on this release is different, stopping just short of eclectic.
This ephemeral quality begins with the cover art for Kick It Down. The bright da-glo of the psychedelic packaging suggests perhaps Jefferson Airplane or The Grateful Dead. Instead, the music is quiet and mostly countrified, more middle-of-the road pop than acid-rock.
Tyson clearly is talented. There's not a bad song on this CD. While they sometimes lean toward the maudlin, Tyson's lyrics are tightly written and mostly avoid the pitfalls of cliche. His melodies have that same better than average quality. A capable singer backed by a solid band, Tyson raises these songs to a higher level.
Over all, Tyson's sound is more rock than folk and has a strong jazz/country flavour. Given time to age and mature, this brew is going to be powerful stuff. In the meantime, Tyson tends at times to sound a bit like Eddie Rabbit, Ian Moore, Bruce Cockburn, John Mellencamp, Georgie Fame, and even the Wallflowers, creating an image that is prismatic and hard to define.
While lacking a certain unity, Kick It Down is still an impressive first solo project. Given his solid resume as a musician and the talent evident in this release, Clay Tyson's future releases should be at least as interesting. If Tyson can find his focus, they promise to be very special indeed.
This music is no dead artifact but a vital aspect of our culture which lives on. The roots of some of these songs reach back for centuries and their influence continues today. I own 78 rpm recordings from early in the last century which are lyrically and musically not so different than the songs here. When I was a child in mid-century, much of the music I heard in the home, on recordings and sung by my father, was not much different than this and indeed included some of these very songs. Neutered versions of some of these songs are taught to school children to this day. And contemporary musicians still perform some of these songs or pick up on their universal themes.
Here is our heritage. The songs here reflect a broad spectrum of cultures which reflects some of the peoples who came to populate this continent and certainly reflects the diversity of people drawn to seek gold in British Columbia more than a century ago. While it is entertaining, this release is also an informative insight to our own past.
There are many songs, each with its own tale to tell, but there are also spoken pieces which give us brief glimpses into life in that long ago time. Interspersed among the songs, these readings of actual Nineteenth Century documents add interest and depth to this very special archive.
While some of these songs have origins in the United States or Europe, several of the lyrics originate in British Columbia and the Cariboo, reflecting our unique Canadian perspective. Richard Wright and Cathryn Wellner are to be commended for preserving this important piece of our history.
Castles in the Air is included with Rough But Honest Miner. This is an honest to goodness 96 page perfect bound book, not just a jewel case liner, and it adds again to the depth and insight of this excursion into the past. Here are the background stories and the lyrics of the songs, archival photographs, and additional anecdotal materials.
Each song and spoken interlude on this recording provides a jumping off point to further explore our history, not just the history of the Cariboo but of Canada and North America. With the additional resources added by the companion book and an associated website, this release belongs in every Canadian school and, I should think, every Canadian home.
Lucky That Way
Hamilton's music would fit well into an easy listening format on radio. Even when it rocks, it's quiet and comfortable. The style is broad and eclectic, drawing from several genres, yet the sound is unified and cohesive. If I were to assign the music on this release an overall category, I would say it is an updated version of the country and rhythm and blues based rock ballads of the late Fifties.
The guitar intro to "Looking For You" sets up a slow rock and roll mood that is enhanced by the soft blues bass line and sweet rollover of the piano behind Hamilton's rock waltz melody. Although they are not there, the listener can feel the presence of doowop backup vocals trying to slip in behind Hamilton.
"Eye to Eye" features Rebekka Fisher in a duet with Hamilton. This is another slow rocker, but with a bit more of an edge to it. This song has very much the same sound and feel as those classy duets sung by Brook Benton and Dinah Washington. This is cool jazzy rock and roll.
Several of Hamilton's songs have a country sound, although it's the older, folkier country sound as opposed to the sound of today's country music. "I wonder if She's Mine" exemplifies Hamilton in this mode. Here is a touching story of reminiscence and regret, of a past not to be retrieved. The melody has echoes of Ian Tyson's "Four Strong Winds" and, as Hamilton sings it, very much the emotion given "Scarlet Ribbons" by Harry Belafonte. This sad, sweet song is sure to appeal to a broad audience.
The combination of Hamilton's writing and vocal skills with the fine musicianship of his band make Lucky That Way a comfortable, enjoyable listen. While none of these songs is likely to make the charts, they should have no problem making drive time radio.
The quality of this recording is outstanding, demonstrating that recording technology may not have advanced so far after all in forty-plus years. This program was recorded on the old transcription machines, recorders that used metal needles to cut grooves in large discs in the years before we began to record broadcasts on tape. The sound is as good as anything you'll hear today. With Sing Christmas rolling in the background as I go about my business, it feels as though I am actually listening to the radio and my mind is transported back to that distant place and time.
Host Alan Lomax is a Texan noted as an influential promoter and supporter of folk music around the world, and especially in Britain and his native America. With live remote links to "the seven sides of Britain," Lomax and his five producers pulled together an elegant tapestry of British cultures through the music of England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and Cornwall. There is an international feel to the program, which also includes songs from the Caribbean, Africa, and the United States.
The music on Sing Christmas is wonderfully eclectic. There are beautiful carols several hundred years old. There are contemporary folk songs and American spirituals. There is calypso and Ghanaian high-life. There is dixieland and skiffle. There are mummers and buskers, professional singers and talented amateurs, single voices and choirs. Among the music, there are scattered interesting stories and commentary and even excerpts from Christmas plays. Many of the performers are unknown to us and some are as well known as Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger.
For those interested in such things, this release includes a forty page booklet packed with information on Lomax and this broadcast, photographs of several participants, and the complete script for Sing Christmas. It's a joy to read.
This recording is thirty seconds short of one hour but, with something like forty songs included, the listener gets a real sense of that Christmas long ago. This is the sort of record that could become a Christmas morning staple for many families, something real and comfortable as backdrop for a special family day.
A year ago, when I reviewed Nonie Crete's The River Grand, I suggested that, although it was her third release, it had an uneven, eclectic sound that suggested she had not yet found her own unique voice. Now I'm very impressed with what she has accomplished in one year. Moonlight Dreams provides a classy setting which allows this former diamond in the rough to shine.
Where The River Grand is an eclectic and at times mismatched potpourri of genres and styles loosely connected by their shared folkiness, Moonlight Dreams is rich and orchestral, its arrangements bordering on lush and the songs beautifully matched to one another. Where the music before was clearly folky, this new release has moved forward and expanded so that, while still folk-music, it has a broader, more universal sense to it and a more pop sensibility. Now the music is not so much Joni Mitchell as it is Aaron Copland, full and powerful. The arrangements here far better suit Crete's writing and her voice.
Crete has grown vocally too. Here is a strong, confident, and eloquent voice. More often than not, especially in "Everywhere I Go" and "Leaving Old Ireland," Crete's voice and her singing style reminds me of Linda Ronstadt at her best. Somewhere in there can also be heard the influences of Judy Collins and perhaps Sandy Denny. Crete's melodies and the way she approaches her lyrics also bring to mind the work of Susan Jacks. What's important though, is that this is no new singer echoing her influences but a maturing artist who has found her own unique voice.
Time of Wonder
Probably the first thing that will strike a listener is Stefan des Lauriers' voice. Here is a wonderful melding of some of the worst and most loved voices in American storytelling. While they are speakers and not singers, Sterling Holloway's hesitancy, Andy Devine's post-adolescent vocal shifts, Jimmy Stewart's awkwardness, and Slim Pickens' golly-gee vocal shuffle all can be heard in des Lauriers' singing style. As a singer, des Lauriers is unique but at times echoes Will Millar, Jud Strunk, and even occasionally Tiny Tim. He also slips into a number of voices that sound like they've been lifted directly from animated cartoons. Set against his quirky songs, this is the perfect voice.
The man pictured on the liner notes looks as though he may live just around the next hill from Fred Penner's log. He may. While Stefan des Lauriers lives in New Jersey, he has strong Canadian connections and clearly stands like Penner with one foot on each side of the border. His lyrics often include Canadian references and his band includes at least one prominent Canadian musician. That musician, Ken Whitely, also co-produced seventeen of the songs on this release.
First glance might suggest that the songs here, several of which extend to about five minutes, are too long to hold the limited attention of children. Some of the subject matter and the very long words also suggest an older audience. Yet the cover art and the style of the music suggests this release is indeed intended for a young audience. This is a contradiction which des Lauriers manages to turn into a strength.
This is highly visual music that children of all ages will enjoy. Whether five or twelve, most youngsters will find something entertaining in the music and lyrics of Time of Wonder. Adults will appreciate the complexity of some of the lyrical themes and the grown-up ideas sprinkled throughout. This is music the family, adults and children, can listen to and enjoy together.
Musically, this release is varied and appealing, with fine musicianship. I especially noticed some exceptional guitar work on several tracks. Stefan des Lauriers' unique vocal style and lyrics supported by an excellent band should make Time of Wonder an interesting addition to anyone's collection.
Stone by Stone
Mae Robertson has potential. Most often, to say this about an artist already on her fourth release might sound almost negative. No so here. Robertson's first three releases were aimed at a child audience. This one is, as her promo material says, "a grown-up recording" and so a change of pace. Based on what I hear, this is not so much a sudden change as a transition. As such, Stone by Stone is a good beginning.
Vocally, Robertson reminds me a lot of Jennifer Warnes [at least, the softer edge of Warnes], so I wasn't surprised to see a Warnes song in the mix. In fact, the Robertson composition "Thinking of Your Eyes" sounds very much like a Warnes composition, in some ways echoing "Song of Bernadette" written by Warnes and Leonard Cohen. While there is this resemblance both in voice and in style to Warnes, Robertson does not have the power, the emotional edge of Warnes.
There seems to be lacking a certain level of confidence. Perhaps this reflects uncertainty in moving from the accepting child's world to seek an adult audience. Perhaps it's something else. Certainly the quality of this recording reveals no reason for less than total self-confidence. Robertson sounds like the artist who has risen above her local or regional peers but has not yet made the break to the next level. Once she takes the risk and stops holding back, the next step will come naturally.
Stone by Stone is, all in all, a strong entry by Mae Robertson into the "grown-up" music world. This experience will hopefully bring to her voice the confidence that will push her next release to the next level.
Go to the Rock
Anyone who ever said church music is boring should listen to Go to the Rock. While the religious implication is clear, the music imbues this title with a positive pun. This music truly does rock. Quirky, with a slight leaning toward the eclectic, this is a release that should appeal to a broad audience.
Who would have thought that Saskatoon, a small city sitting on the edge of Saskatchewan's agricultural prairies populated largely by Scandinavians and other Northern peoples often considered to be very conservative, could produce such vital music? With the support of St. James' Anglican Church and her musical community, director Angie Tysseland has drawn something very exciting out of this prairie community.
I hear many influences in this recording. Here is a Billy Preston keyboard adding spice to an already potent mix. In at least one song, I hear that strutting hambone based guitar rhythm made famous by Bo Diddley. The vocals and arrangements remind me most of big Sixties gospel groups such as The Edwin Hawkins Singers, who recorded such a powerful performance of "Lay Down" with Melanie Safka. I also hear bits of Lighthouse and Chicago and even The Beatles running through this music. At times, Godspell and Jesus Christ, Superstar come to mind. It's an interesting mélange with a feel as much of urban New Orleans or California as the Canadian prairie.
I enjoy hearing work that is well done. I enjoy quirky material. I enjoy work where the artist is not afraid to take chances. So, do I like this recording? Yes. Would I recommend it? Yes. Everyone involved with this project is to be commended. In fact, I remain with only one complaint. I want more.
While Colcannon's aim is clearly a traditional Irish sound, they are not locked into pure tradition. The overall tone is set by the Irish Gaelic vocals of the first song. Instruments, however include such non-traditional, non-Irish instruments as the cornet, bouzouki, electric bass, mandocello, mandolin, and tenor banjo. What the sound reminds me of most is the sort of full-fleshed orchestral sound we heard backing some of the top Irish acts in then late Sixties. For some reason, although I'm not sure the comparison is fully valid, Tommy Makem and The Clancy Brothers come to mind.
This is clearly music intended not for a parochial Irish audience but the world (feel free to read North American) market. The sound is full and rich and avoids the cliches of both simplistic folk treatments and the new so called Celtic and Celtic-rock movements. It is centred just right to appeal to audiences of all ages at every level of society.
This release includes three medleys of traditional instrumental music that will raise even the near-dead to dance. The rhythms are bright and captivating, carrying the listener into the Irish world of Colcannon. These medleys alone make it worthwhile to own Corvus.
The only thing I can think of that would improve Mick Bolger's vocals would be to back them with some of the world's finest musicians. Based on this release, this has already been accomplished. Colcannon is as tight, polished, professional a band as I have heard in a very long time. Any singer would sound better backed by Colcannon. Bolger is better than just any singer. What he and this band do together is very special.
Bolger has a rich singing voice that fills out and enhances any lyric, but there's more to it than that. No rustic, he has a fine-tuned voice through which his accent shines enough to establish the Irishness of his songs while remaining subtle enough for foreign audiences. Bolger keeps the sense of story in his presentation, never sacrificing the story to the music, yet using the music to underline the stories he tells. There is a great sense of balance in Bolger's singing.
A Family Gathering
Acie Cargill and I are about the same age. When I was a child, my parents exposed my sisters and me to a very broad range of music. Prime among that music was folk, country, and hillbilly music. My father was a country singer and square dance caller and I remember hearing live music at barn dances that was much the same as the music Acie Cargill has preserved for us here. What a joy to hear this music again as it was back then!
Most, but not all, of the songs recorded here are very familiar to me, heard in my childhood. They are songs that will trigger fond memories in those of my generation and older, but are not played or recorded often by younger musicians. If it gets some exposure, perhaps this release may influence some of today's artists to discover an important piece of their musical heritage.
Featuring musicians from both Cargill's parents' families (including Cargill himself playing banjo at twelve years of age), this music has the full, lively sound heard at dances across North America a half-century ago. Crank it up loud and just try to keep your feet still. It won't happen.
Cargill points out that, "These musicians were not professionals. They were miners, workers, and small farmers, family people who loved their homes and traditions. The music has historical value because these tunes are rarely heard anymore and they were played in the old primitive styles that are now gone. The Tylers [Cargill's mother's family] were known for preserving the traditional music that had been passed through generations."
I find myself wondering if someone, perhaps Folkways, might undertake to preserve the original tapes of this event for future generations.
if you have questions or comments about this web site.